Ten years ago we would often match Celtic for skill and thought, and even outplay them, but succumb to their sheer physical dynamism and self-belief, and to their strikers who buried chances deep into the back of the Hearts net.
Well, fortunately Celtic now believe that skill alone will get them there - rather as Hearts do against lesser sides - and were surprised that Hearts weren't going to let them get on with it. Celtic now lack the murdersome thugs of Weegieland: fortunately they sold Burley, McNamara's getting worse by the minute and Lambert was sent off after 35 minutes. Whether or not Hugh Dallas feels he owes Hearts one or whether his heid's still sair from the silver potato-token flung at him at Parkhead last year, he got through a very difficult game without making a total mess of it. He refused Celtic a last-minute penalty, the sort that David Syme would have given ten years ago - though if Celtic were two and not twenty points off the lead, Dallas would probably have given it. But he can smell dead meat as well as the rest of us, and it's hardly as though he cares what they think of him anymore. Truth be told, Celtic supporters have got worse problems than Hugh Dallas, and they know it.
Man of the Match: Hugh Dallas.
There were times during this game that Hearts played some sublime football. But that was because for every inch of the way they fought for it, occasionally scrapped for it, and defended in midfield rather than at the edge of their own penalty area. Lambert's dismissal made a big difference, (as presumably did Viduka's absence) make no mistake, for after that Celtic had nothing in the midfield and wisely chose to defend, at times desperately, and hope they could snatch an equaliser on the break. It wasn't Hearts' fault that they nearly succeeded, either. During the second half, Hearts slowed it down without getting in a fankle, and passed it about - We Are The Masters Now! and then put their foot on the throttle and nearly got in for a second. It was genuinely impressive, though it would have been much more so if Hearts had scored. There's still no real cutting-edge up front; McSwegan's attitude still makes me wonder about him, and believe me folks, Gary Wales will never, never learn how to score goals. He is not good enough. Occasionally over-elaboration was a problem, and this also allowed Celtic to break upfield in dangerous numbers, but fortunately Pressley was magnificent, and Petric, though still cumbersome and unambitious, won everything in the air. No-one's convinced by him, other than Billy Brown. The only failure on the day was Naysmith, who looked out of sorts and nearly gave away a couple of goals. He's not had a very good season, which explains why Craig Brown's getting interested.
On the other side, Flogel was outstanding. Hearts really have no solution when he's absent, which is what was initially wrong against Hibs. He's not a great defender and he's not a great attacker, but he positions himself well, controls the ball well, passes the ball well. God knows why Jefferies has taken so long to realise all this, but Flogel has quality, and quality counts. He links up well with Cameron and Jackson, who were superb, and Adam's running down the line is now creating far more space for them to do their stuff. No, without Tam or Steph, Hearts don't have a convincing Plan B. Tomaschek is unorthodox, and some people won't take to him. I think he's outstanding, and if we manage to get into Europe he will show a lot more than the hustle and bustle of the SPL allows. But his ungainliness was very much an asset when he managed to get a telescopic leg to the ball enough to unsettle Berkowitz and Moravcik. He reads the game well and covers a lot of ground very quickly.
Nothing will ever persuade me that Lee Makel is any good. There's no doubting his skill, his passing ability, and what a clean striker of the ball he is. But too often he runs around in circles and gets nowhere. He makes a good pass, gives a little skip, and then goes back to Square One where he was standing. He's Done His Bit. That's okay for reserve league football and all, but in the SPL he has to follow the ball and add to his achievement. For all his faults, Fulton realises his responsibility - get in the box if possible. Makel is too much of a lightweight in every regard. I'd personally like to see Severin play instead, to add a physical presence. He's not much less creative, either, and he drives into the box at every opportunity.
And last, though not least, is everyone's favourite Antti. Despite the fact that Hearts played magnificently and Celtic were pretty dreadful, it was only one goal that separated the two sides and it could have been curtains but for two spectacular saves that would have left us seething as Celtic went away laughing.
Man of the Match: Antti Niemi.
As it was, the final whistle was greeted with the same joyous relief that reminded us all of the Cup Final, and when the news came through that Motherwell had lost four goals in the second half to Dundee, it couldn't have got much better: except we had another 24 hours of worry before the Cup semi-final.
And then it did get much better.
Much better .
© Grouser Production
CC All Rights the World